Trench warfare was not particularly a developed concept, but more one that was produced as a result of the battlefield conditions after 1914. The idea of trench warfare radically changes not only war itself but the idea of a soldier. Soldiers lose the offensive morale they once had, and men like Theodore Roosevelt, who led his Rough Riders zealously from the front into battle against the enemy in the Spanish-American war, were no longer seen. Commanders who wanted to go on the offensive were generally sending their troops to their deaths, ending the ability for individual companies or even individual soldiers and generals to gain a reputation as heroes and men who turned the tide of the war.
Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz was a Prussian military philosopher who died in 1831. His military theories and philosophies are often studied, with applications in trench warfare. The so-called “fog of war” idea discussed by Clausewitz was a type of situational awareness by the commanders of each side of the battle. There was poor awareness on the part of the commanders during the beginning of the First World War. The idea of offensive tactics and aggression had been so engrained into the head of the soldier and commander that when trench warfare came about, officers were deathly slow at adjusting their tactics. Their lack of judgment against trench warfare cost countless lives, as trench warfare was especially able to defend against massive frontal offensives.
Life in the trenches for a soldier was dreadful, though they were not always at the front lines. Soldiers generally rotated duties between the front, reserve, and rear trenches to alleviate at least some of the troubles soldiers were experiencing on the front lines. No matter where a soldier was, ailments that came with being in the trenches, such as “trench foot”, were always possible. Men on the front lines of the trenches had to be constantly alert for an attack, and the possibility of attacks occurring at night often led to extreme paranoia among all soldiers. Men who had died in No Man’s Land, the area between opposing trenches, were always decaying. If the smell and the sheer presence of massive deaths not two hundred yards away was not enough, rats often were present around the dead bodies and in the trenches themselves as a result of the decay.
From trench warfare comes a number of valuable sources to how men managed and lived in their trenches. The trench was their home and they would be at them for years at a time. Newspapers and magazines reported on the condition of many trenches for people to read. During Christmas in 1914, many German troops put up a “Tannenbaum,” or a Christmas tree. In some places untraditional “truces” were struck between the Allied and Central Power troops. During Christmas both sides sung Christmas hymns and participated in games and gift exchanges in No Man’s Land as hostilities slowed, though only in some areas. There were more ideas of “truces,” such as not attacking at certain times of the day when men ate or night. The “Christmas truce” in 1914 would be the only of such armistices, as angered generals prevented it from happening in the future by ordering artillery attacks on Christmas Eve in later years. The Christmas truce as well as other soldier armistices brought a slight sense of community with their enemy, though if it was only for a moment. When they went back to the fighting, the sense of community was for their fellow soldiers, though there was a certain connection soldiers had with their enemy, as is depicted in Erich Remarque’s World War I novel “Im Westen nichts Neues”, or “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
“Vergib mir, Kamerad – wie konntest du mein Feind sein! Wenn wir diese Waffen und diese Uniform fortwerfen, koenntest du ebenso mein Bruder sein wie Kat und Albert.”
“Forgive me, comrade – how could you be my enemy! If we threw away these rifles and this uniform, you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert.”
“Im Western nichts Neues” by Erich Maria Remarque
“The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell
“The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub